One Sentence Summary: Born an obscure German princess, Catherine the Great became one of Russia’s greatest monarchs through sheer determination (and the love of those close to her).
One Sentence Review: Massie’s epic biography succeeds by showing the personal side of history, infusing even the most dry parts of history with emotion and importance.
Book Review: Catherine the Great, a woman now recognized as the most celebrated and longest-ruling female monarch of Russia, was born an obscure German princess. After traveling to Russia at 14 to marry a young heir to the throne, Catherine rose to power out of her own determination and support from those who grew to love her strong personality, intelligence, and benevolence.
Despite my love of nonfiction, I don’t read many biographies. I’ve always found them a little dense, and they’re often difficult to organize — when biographers simply tell a life story chronologically, it’s hard to pull out themes and threads that bring a historical figure to light. Despite its length (656 pages or almost 24 hours on audio), Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman, never seems to have those problems.
I think the reason Massie succeeds with this biography is evident in the book’s subtitle — “a portrait of a woman.” Massie keeps the biography focused on the people that had the most impact on Catherine and organizes each section around these relationships. While it can get a little confusing to remember which Russian lover is which, or which minor ruler matters at a given moment, on the whole the book is kept moving through the way Massie makes each historical figure into a real person.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Catherine before reading this biography, so I’m not in a position to comment either on accuracy or how it fits into the canon of other books about Catherine. However, I felt that while it was clear Massie admires Catherine, he also was not afraid to show some of her more unflattering qualities or decisions, or places where her ambition did not meet up with reality.
Audio Review: The narrator for Catherine the Great was Mark Deakins, who is quickly growing to be one of my favorite audiobook narrators. Deakins was also the narrator for two other audiobooks I’ve listed too — The Lost City of Z and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, both written by David Grann.
In all three books, Deakins showcases his ability to subtly change his accent or inflections for different characters. Catherine the Great was, I think, the first time I’ve heard him narrate dialogue for women extensively, and I thought he handled it really well. I have no criticisms about the audio production of the book (but keep in mind that it’s really, really long — nearly 24 hours in total).
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